News

Silverado ads go for reaction: Some offended, others feel patriotic

Kortney Stringer
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT -- TV ads for the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado that show vivid images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are having a polarizing effect among some consumers .

George W. Holmes, an African American who heads the New York-based civil rights group Congress for Racial Equality, said: "If they'd marched with us when we got fire hoses turned on us, then maybe they'd deserve to use those images."

Anthony Johnson, a Troy, Mich., resident who is also black, had the opposite reaction. "I was like, 'Wow!' I felt somewhat patriotic," he said.

General Motors Corp.'s Chevy officials said the Silverado "Anthem" spots, which also show images of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, former President Richard Nixon and boxer Muhammad Ali, are supposed to illustrate the hardships and accomplishments the United States has endured .

The campaign for the company's top-selling pickup features four ads that use the unreleased song "Our Country" by John Mellencamp, including one that shows a man holding a sleeping baby with the words "Our purpose. Our country."

"We wanted to set up this proposition that we've been standing side by side with all the things America goes through, ups and downs," said Kim Kosak, Chevy's general director of advertising and sales promotions. "No matter what happens in this country, we persevere, and there's one car that's been there through it all, and that's the Silverado."

When advertisers try to elicit strong emotional responses from consumers, it can backfire. Mira Lee, a marketing professor at Michigan State University, said it was risky of Chevy to use the images it did, including an American helicopter during the Vietnam War and a forest fire .

"It reminds people of events that were sad, shameful and of acts of racism, violence and terror," she said. "People don't want to remember those events. It will likely stir up negative feelings that people will associate with the brand."

Acceptable to target audience

Overall, though, the Silverado ad seems to resonate with potential buyers. According to a recent CNW Marketing Research study of 1,182 people who intend to buy a vehicle, 62 percent of women and 58 percent of men considered the ads patriotic, while 11 percent of men and 22 percent of women thought the ads were patronizing.

"No doubt about it, it's edgy advertising," said Art Spinella, CNW's president. "The minute you start using political or war images, you're going to polarize because it looks as if you're commercializing something that's part of history. Conversely, for the particular audience they're targeting -- pickup truck buyers -- they're probably going to find that to be pretty good imagery or at least acceptable imagery."

To be sure, when Chevy's marketing team and its ad agency, Warren-based Campbell-Ewald, began brainstorming for the new Silverado ads, they had their target audience in mind. Pickup buyers are overwhelmingly blue-collar workers who are extremely patriotic.

Chevy, which paid for or got permission to use all images in the "Anthem" ads, said it tested the spots with pickup buyers in Florida, Texas and California. The trials resulted in the automaker tossing out an image of an atomic bomb test because executives thought it might be offensive . Chevy said its overall goal was to capture the American experience .

"We were deliberate about the images we picked," Kosak said. "We're sensitive to how our consumers react. That's why we tested it to make sure we're speaking to them with compassion. The last thing we want to do is offend someone."

Still, the images Chevy used in the new ads have managed to offend at least some consumers, journalists and auto bloggers, who say Chevy shouldn't try to profit from the images.

"These images demand a little reverence and quiet contemplation," wrote Mary Connelly, a columnist for Automotive News . "They are not meant to be backed with a crappy music track and then mushed together in a glib swirl of emotion tied to a product launch."

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